Black tie vs. business casual: decoding formality

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

I admit that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, witch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable.

Don’t pull an Elle Woods and show up to an email chain in inappropriate attire.

One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The staff newsletter, written by employees for employees, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT staffers under age 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “resvd conf rm for the 3 pm.”

There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that text would look ridiculous on a printed page. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” using terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and Bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, got a writer fired when someone forwarded it to the CEO.

The level of formality also varies according to industry. Publishing and entertainment companies tend to be casual (although publishing types are notorious sticklers about language), whereas law firms veer to the other extreme. So it might be appropriate to start a letter to a senior editor “Dear Leela” but address a junior associate as “Ms. Pandit.”

The following “informal” elements are often acceptable in business writing:

  • Abbreviations. Familiar abbreviations like “DVD,” “copy” and “fax” are not only acceptable but preferable—you’d sound pretentious if you spelled them out. On the other hand, recent terms like “btw” and “fyi” should be avoided except in texts or very informal e-mails. And as for LOL, BRB and the like—no.
  • Colloquialisms. Conventional wisdom holds that words like “kids” and “guys,” and sayings like “nail Jell-O to the wall,” should never be used in business writing. But if your document has a personal tone, and the terms are age-appropriate and not overly hackneyed, they’re fine.
  • Contractions. Used correctly, contractions like “I’m,” “won’t” and “they’re” have all but replaced full words, even in formal documents. That said, if you’re not confident about your contractions, you’re better off spelling them out than risking an embarrassing error.
  • Em dashes. Once reserved for informal writing, these handy marks—expressing a thought within a thought—are now appropriate anywhere, in moderation.
  • Imperatives. As a rule, clarity is prized over old-school courtesy in correspondence with people you know. “Remember to visit our booth at the trade show” is better than “We hope you’ll remember….” Similarly, active voice has replaced passive voice in just about every situation. It’s fine to say, “I approved that yesterday” instead of “The document was approved yesterday.”
  • Second-person pronouns. The use of “one” or “the reader” instead of “you”—as in “One can hardly remember a time before cable television—” has gone the way of the Cave Bear except in charmingly retro publications like The New Yorker.

However, these elements are rarely if ever appropriate:

  • Profanity. Even if your recipient isn’t offended, work e-mail accounts are the property of the company and can be read by any authorized person. Why risk getting fired for the transitory pleasure of lobbing the f-bomb?
  • Slang. There’s a thin line between colloquial usage and slang: The first describes informal, relaxed language that could be used by anyone, while the second is specific to a region or ethnic/cultural group. Slang is easier to misunderstand and more likely to make you look bigoted and provincial.
  • TMI. Save the details of your personal life for drinks after work. Sharing them in business correspondence is highly unprofessional.

One last caveat: Informal writing does not give you a license to make errors. Though casual language is less pretentious and more appealing under the right circumstances, poor grammar or spelling just makes you look dumb. So edit your informal business writing just as carefully as your formal proposals, and, when in doubt, keep things buttoned up.

Let’s get figurative

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “Why would I watch my back, or keep my eyes peeled?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Regional idioms even flummox native speakers. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that stymie me.

Are you overwhelmed by idioms?

You may not even know you’re using them until it’s too late. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner (I am embarrassed to say I verbed this: “Let’s back burner the annual report until budgets are approved.”)
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards (or the more colorful “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”)
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get down to brass tacks
  • Loose cannon
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • No strings attached
  • Piece of cake
  • Pumped up
  • Reinvent the wheel
  • Start the ball rolling
  • Throw money at it

I’m also partial to our animal friends: dark horses, ugly ducklings, snakes in the grass, and pearls before swine. And let’s not forget the sports world, where team players huddle up before taking the ball and running with it.

Should we banish idioms from business writing? Sometimes they add a welcome bit of humanity to emails or presentations. In business, as elsewhere, it’s nice to make people smile.

That said, too much reliance on idioms can label you as uncreative at best, boorish or provincial at worse. Here are some guidelines for business usage:

  1. Avoid outright clichés. When a term is overused, people gloss over it (and you). Terms like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “hit the nail on the head” and “look a gift horse in the mouth” are so familiar they no longer mean anything.
  2. Some terms are better in writing. If you look me in the eye and tell me you’re a “self starter” or “good for the long haul,” I’m liable to laugh. But I’ll buy that language (so to speak) in correspondence.
  3. Consider your audience. It goes without saying that idioms are confusing for non-English speakers. But British, Australian and American writers use widely different terms, as well. I’m still scratching my head over “gone pear-shaped,” “up sticks” and “one over the eight.” (Note: I also find many U.S. regional idioms confusing. What the heck is “chopping in tall cotton?”)
  4. Don’t get personal. No matter how clever they may sound, you’re in line for a lawsuit if you use idioms to describe or criticize other professionals. Your boss may be “dumber than a bag of hair” or “crazy as a peach orchard boar,” but you need to keep those evaluations to yourself.

Finally, remember that one person’s idiom is another’s idiocy. I’m a fan of playful language, even in professional settings, so I will find it charming if you say a keynote speaker is “peeing on my leg, but it’s warm and it feels good.” Just keep it out of the company newsletter.

Don’t get personal, and other tips for effective business emails

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Emails are more likely to be misinterpreted than any other form of business communication. The writer dashes off a friendly note, but the reader perceives an abrupt tone. You soften the message with a smiley face, and I think, “What a flake.”

Take the stress out of emailing.

Here are some guidelines for friendly but professional emails:

  • Say hello, but don’t get chatty. Pretend it’s a business call. You would greet me, but you wouldn’t ask if I was enjoying the spring weather.
  • Don’t start with a name. When I see “Deborah:”, I assume I’m going to be lectured or instructed.
  • Break out the positive language. Don’t go over the top. I recently got a direct mail piece that said, “We were unbelievably excited to see you at the conference!” But let me know you care.
  • Don’t free-associate. Repetition and long sentences might sound endearing on the phone, but they look disorganized on the page.
  • It’s OK to be a little informal. Avoid stilted language and phrases like “As per our conversation, the attached …”
  • Don’t get personal. Ever. Imagine your email on the gigantic screen in Times Square, and make sure it won’t embarrass you if the whole world read it.

Less bang, more buck

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a self-satisfied chuckle), “Using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Like much of his work, this statement was unoriginal; numerous sources attribute it to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But it’s true that there’s something self-serving about what copy editors call the bang character.

It’s a sign.

Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), exclamation points were originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense—”That’s the biggest wart I’ve ever seen!”—as well as to sarcasm and warnings.

The recent trend toward overuse might have started with Tom Wolfe, who (if Trivial Pursuit is to be believed) employed 2,343 of them in his blockbuster “Bonfire of the Vanities.” It’s gotten a huge boost from email and text messaging, where multiple bangs are routinely used to turn up the volume.

In response, editors have begun cautioning writers to use exclamation points sparingly, if at all. “When I was at Conde Nast, an editor told me I was allowed one exclamation point a year. I’ve gone on to make that demand of anyone who contributes to our site,” says Susan Farewell, editor of FarewellTravels.com.

“Good writers convey tone and emphasis through their words, not their punctuation,” agrees Richard Altman. “As a public relations writer, I have to be especially careful not to overhype my clients or I’ll lose credibility.”

It’s important to remember that exclamation points express emotion; they’re the written equivalent of a raised voice. How emotional do you want your writing to be? People who get excited about every little thing are perceived as flighty and unprofessional, and those who never show sparks seem dull and plodding.

Here are sensible guidelines for the use of exclamation points in business:

  1. Use sparingly. “Overuse pretty much renders exclamation marks useless,” says marketing writer Amy Goodfellow Wagner. “They’re supposed to add punch, but sprinkling them too liberally dilutes the intended effect.” This is especially true when the preceding statement is positive. “I can’t wait to see the website” or “It was a pleasure meeting you” sound enthusiastic enough without gilding the lily. There’s one exception to this rule: Using certain exclamatory words without an exclamation point can sound sarcastic or derisive. Compare “Well, that’s fabulous.” with “Well, that’s fabulous!”
  2. One is enough. Multiple exclamation points suggest that you are really worked up—they’re the verbal equivalent of hitting someone over the head. The result is annoying at best and toxic at worst. Statements like, “I can’t believe your team missed the deadline!!!” signal the end of professional discourse.
  3. Don’t combine with other punctuation marksEvery now and then, someone suggests putting an exclamation point next to a question mark to create the graphic equivalent of “WTF.”  It’s even got a name: the interrobang. Like WTF and its close relative LMAO, it doesn’t belong in business writing.
  4. Consider the context. The more casual the form of communication—text messages, friendly emails and blog posts—the more flexible your writing can be. Keep it formal for proposals, company memos and correspondence that’s strictly business.
  5.  Get personal. Sometimes it’s appropriate to exhibit a personal interest—say, when a coworker has a baby or gets an award. “Exclamation points communicate emotions that we normally rely on vocal intonations or facial expressions to convey,” says Elaine Van S. Carmichael, president of Economic Stewardship.
  6. Share your enthusiasm. As long as they’re sincerely meant, very few people would object to the use of exclamation points in the following statements: “Great job!” “You’re amazing!” “Well done!” In this context, they’re the equivalent of a round of applause—something we could all use more of.

To write better, break a few rules

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Here’s a difficult dichotomy: Sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean more powerful and compelling. The following rules are made to be broken:

  1. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”
  2. Never end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re redundant. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as “where it is.”
  3. Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this “error.”
  4. Don’t use “data” as a singular. I know it’s a Latinate word, but guess what? So is “agenda.” Have you ever heard anyone ask for the agendum? Somehow we manage to use the Latin plural as a singular and not sound like idiots. Similarly, “The data—not the datum—on this disk is—not are—corrupt.”
  5. Avoid one-sentence paragraphs. My 10-year-old has been taught that all paragraphs must contain a minimum of three sentences: topic, supporting and closing. To which I say: What a load of horse manure.
  6. Don’t use sentence fragments. While too many of these can make your writing sound disjointed, judicious usage adds some welcome “pop.” Even in business writing. In my humble opinion.
  7. Shun contractions. I can’t think of any document—except maybe a wedding invitation or legal writ—so formal that it requires the use of “cannot” instead of “can’t,” “would not” instead of “won’t,” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” However, it’s fine to use the longer form for emphasis, as in “I cannot believe you wore that to the office!”
  8. Worship at the altar of Strunk & White. I don’t much know about Strunk (except that he was an English professor at Cornell back in the dark ages), but E.B. White was an amazing writer. He also broke his own rules. Pick up “Charlotte’s Web” or any of his New Yorker articles, and you’ll find clauses introduced by “Which” and sentences starting with “However.” “The Elements of Style” also rails against adjectives and adverbs: “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs,” it instructs. Think White paid attention? Nu-uh. And neither should you.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.

From bake-offs to nastygrams: the definitive list of corporate clichés

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Here, alphabetized for your convenience, is the best list I could devise of corporate metaphors, catchphrases and clichés you would be embarrassed to utter outside a teak-paneled boardroom. Bonus points to anyone who can add to the list and/or use three of these in a single sentence:

A lot of tentacles.

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